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Five years after my last visit to Sheffield left me feeling rather underwhelmed, the South Yorkshire city renowned for steel and cutlery manufacture has received a city centre facelift. Its collection of fine Victorian buildings at the heart of the city has been enhanced by the addition of a magnificent modern piazza, called the Peace Gardens, in front of the City Hall, and the landmark Winter Gardens a few steps away, where exotic plants and palms nestle in a serence space beneath a spectacular roof. It's all part of the Heart Of The City project which aims to put the former back into the latter and provide an impressive series of urban setpieces. Away from these, however, there's little to trouble your camera - much of Sheffield is ugly on a heroic scale, be it the bleak expanses of ring road such as Arundel Gate or the charmless shopping street of The Moors. It's this sheer lack of citywide visual appeal that has led the city to be rather ignored by the nation at large, especially compared to nearby cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. But a city is more than just a collection of pretty buildings; Sheffield still has a certain something that appeals. And that something is the unrivalled warmth, friendliness and wit of its people, noticeable on even the most fleeting of visits. Perhaps this is why graduates of the University of Sheffield speak of the city with such profound affection. Any visitor to the city should of course check out the aforementioned Millennium projects, especially the Winter Gardens; from there, linger in the Peace Gardens before heading to Division Street which is the centrepiece of the Devonshire Quarter, a young and vibrant area of interesting individual shops, such as the modern-day youth bazaar The Forum. On a sunny Saturday, this area hums with a wonderful vibe, with young people relaxing in the neighbouring Devonshire Green, a scruffy expanse of lawn overlooked by expensive new condos. This are
a links in nicely with the University district based around the lively, up-and-coming West Road, distinguished by its cafes, bars and student-oriented shops, as well as the immense noise of Sheffield's huge, lumbering trams that are only a decade old but sound a century older. If time permits, a tentative exploration of the embryonic Cultural Industries Quarter by the railway station can be rewarding. Aesthetically, I'd advise lowering your expectations, although there are a couple of superb modern buildings amidst the unassuming low rise, including the now-defunct National Centre For Popular Music. The Site art gallery and cafe is now the principal distraction in this area. Sheffield's nightlife is regarded as very good but if clubbing and bar life don't rock your world then the city's probably not in itself worth an overnight stay. An enjoyable day can be had, though, especially if you have lunch at the marvellous Olive Garden cafe near the Winter Gardens (above a historic health food shop) and afternoon snack on waffles from the Double Dutch Pancake Bar in Orchard Square.
If Edinburgh is the first place on any first time visitor to the UK's itinerary, then expect the rest of your trip to disappoint; and if it is the last place, then it's a good spot to ponder the unfairness of life: some people - and places - really have it all. This is a spectacular city that impresses even those with the high expectations borne of the hype that perennially surrounds Edinburgh. Even as far as capitals go, it is supremely gifted. Foremost among its literal embarrassment of riches is supremely elegant architecture and stunning town planning, with a wide array of monuments and historic buildings, and an enviably low ugly building quotient. But what makes Edinburgh special - magical, romantic - is its astonishing topography and natural geography. The city is pockmarked with hills, valleys and remarkable stretches of open space overlooked by tenements. Tenements are the main living format in Edinburgh - basically, they're old, high-density apartment blocks which help give the city a very continental feel that low-density English cities fail to achieve because of the affinity of the English for back gardens and suburbia. The other thing that makes Edinburgh more a city of Europe than of the UK is its liberal licensing laws, meaning nights out start and end later. And you'll never get bored in Edinburgh - the city is bestowed with a seemingly endless selection of superb restaurants, bars, cafés, pubs, clubs and bistros. Indeed, one of the delights of Edinburgh is the vast array of small, independent shops and cafés of great character, including some of the best delicatessens in Britain. Another noticeable difference from England is the care Edinburgh's council takes over the city's remarkable environment: not just in terms of an absence of vandalism and litter but also in terms of taking great care to construct new buildings and urban spaces to very high standards of design. This is not unique to Edinburgh - all of Scotland is renow
ned for this sensitivity. If arriving by train, Waverley Station nestles discreetly in a tight valley with the Old Town on one side and the New Town on the other, with Edinburgh Castle at the head of this space and Calton Hill at the foot. The New Town is a masterpiece of town planning, and more than a little reminiscent of other cities of the same era, such as Bath and parts of Bristol. Block after block of elegant terraces are the order of the day. Princes Street is Edinburgh's Oxford Street, commanding great views of the city's landmarks and defining the southern boundary of the New Town. Parallel to Princes Street is perhaps the New Town's most appealing street, George Street, where some good boutiques and bars can be found. And parallel still but further back is Queen Street - a stark, sheer line of terraces that's a little austere for my liking. The New Town, especially towards Princes Street, contains many of the chains that you'll find in any British city but in considerably grander surroundings. And besides, there's Jenners, Edinburgh's unique department store. Away from the shopping, there are handsome squares and crescents galore, all carrying a composed, formal air. The New Town is connected to the Old Town by bridges. Below, you might think there's a river. No - it's Waverley Station and Princes Street Gardens. Walk along North Bridge and marvel at the views. The Old Town is, as you might expect, rather more intimate than the New. The joy of it is that it's laid out on two different levels based upon the natural gradient of the hilltop on which it is built, leading to a playful, if slightly confusing area of bridges, canyons and steps. This area is much stronger if you're after interesting coffee shops and independent stores - for example, Victoria Street, which is beautiful. (But then, everything in Edinburgh is beautiful - it's a given.) Other well-known streets in the Old Town include
the Grassmarket, an attractive space increasingly known for pubs (and which does feel uncannily like the Netherlands; that's a compliment) and of course the Royal Mile, tourist central, which runs from the Castle down to the Queen's residence at Holyrood. Here's a tip: once at Hollyrood, bear vaguely right for Arthur's Seat, an astonishing slab of mountainscape and wonderful wide open space surrounded by the city, or bear vaguely left for Calton Hill, a hill crowned with various monuments that commands spectacular views of Edinburgh, with the Castle and Princes Street standing out in a unique skyline. There's more - so much more - but those are the basics. There's enough here to devote a week to, and that's not mentioning the beautiful, wild coast of East Lothian. There are some criticisms that people levy at Edinburgh: it's quite conservative and lacks the edgy innovation of Glasgow; it's not a multicultural city - indeed, it's very white; the people are said to be a little cold and reserved (though they seemed fine to me); and on a grey, rainy day the type of stone used in almost all of Edinburgh's tenements can seem dispiritingly dark and gloomy. But truly, this is a proud, sublime capital city that can take its place amongst Prague, Venice and Paris as one of the most stunning, sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Just expect to return to your home town feeling elated at the experience you've just had, and glum at how rubbish your home town probably seems by comparison!
Manchester City Centre is great - but don't go round telling Mancunians that, they're big-headed enough as it is! Some might like to sneer that the Commonwealth Games which the city is about to host is a pretty irrelevant sporting competition in the big scheme of things, but does Manchester care? No, it's too busy having the last laugh. It has a great new stadium plus a plethora of other sporting facilities in the east of the city and the city centre has been treated to cosmetic surgery amounting to millions of pounds. And that's not mentioning a fresh injection of new tourist attractions, such as the spectacular-looking Urbis museum, the revamped Manchester Art Gallery and the iconic Imperial War Museum North. The city's main shopping street, Market Street, has been tastefully relandscaped as has the previously shabby Piccadilly Gardens, a key transport hub where seediness has been replaced by a superbly designed new park where the only-slip up is a huge concrete wall on one side - an odd choice. What makes Manchester city centre a really enjoyable place to walk around is its size and layout. A plan in the 1950s to demolish most of its Victorian buildings and erect a series of tower blocks stretching from Piccadilly down to Oxford Road never saw the light of day because Manchester was in decline and didn't have the means to carry it out. Meanwhile, Birmingham was booming and carried out similar plans (comprising a series of ring roads). How Manchester must be grateful for the timing of its decline, and how Birmingham must rue its former good fortune! No ring road means Manchester feels bigger and busier than its Midland competitor; block after block of robust street architecture, with some of the most memorable cityscapes - not necessarily the prettiest - in the country. There's no end of streets and lanes to explore, and it's a pleasure to get lost, except for when it's raining - which is very often,
sadly. No ring road also means plenty of room for the city centre to expand outwards and plenty of space for quirky, independent businesses, great pubs and cool bars to call home. Check out Afflecks Palace and the Colloseum, grungy shopping complexes at the gateway to the Northern Quarter, a down-at-heel but still interesting part of the city centre. It is oddly remindful of New York, as is the (tiny) Chinatown area and (increasingly dull) Gay Village. Elsewhere, the city sports a shiny, scrubbed European feel. This flukey, lucky place was blessed with the best IRA bomb ever, in 1996. How can a bomb be "good", let alone "best"? Don't worry, it's no longer taboo to speak in such a way about the Manchester bomb - it killed no-one and destroyed what was by far the ugliest, most depressing part of the city centre, enabling planners and architects to start afresh. The post-bomb masterplan is nearing completion. Urbis is part of it; and Cathedral Gardens is lovely, framing the historic buildings around it very well, while successfully offsetting Urbis. There's lots of so-so new retail architecture, the Royal Exchange Theatre's been refurbed stylishly, but the new Exchange Square doesn't really work for me, and the Triangle is a terribly bland shopping centre compared to what was there before. The loveliest part of the city centre is King Street, St. Ann's Square, Albert Square and that general vicinity - much of which is positively genteel. But I prefer the brasher parts of the city centre further south and east - more energy, more inspiration. Even in these areas, the general quality of architecture is very good, some superb mercantile builidings (most of which seem to house lofts and apartments - again more good fortune, as many of these were empty and threatened until the city living boom came along at just the right time and rehabilitated them.) Further south, Castlefield and Dean
sgate Locks is a canalside area more reminiscent of Birmingham. If arriving by Piccadilly Station, it's worth getting the tram to the G-Mex Station, exploring this area and then working your way up by foot, perhaps using Deansgate and then deviating at whichever points interest you. So, as a Birmingham resident, should I be envious of Manchester? After all, most people now think of it as the Second City, and not Birmingham. And most people prefer Manchester city centre as an 'experience' to Birmingham city centre. What do I think? Well, at the moment the competition for Second City status is all sewn-up - with Manchester the current winner. Overall, I too prefer Manchester city centre to Birmingham city centre, simply because it's more cohesive and more vibrant. Birmingham is very good at set-pieces: Manchester has nothing quite as impressive as Birmingham's Victoria Square, or the Mailbox or the Custard Factory, nor suburbs quite as plush as Edgbaston et al. But what Manchester city centre does have is a consistent look and feel; one doesn't have to go scurrying around abysmal areas to get to the good stuff, as the visitor to Birmingham has to. Manchester is less fragmented; it is not a city of bits and pieces, and this will enable Manchester to withstand Birmingham's challenge when the new Bull Ring and other developments are finished. Because, ultimately, "you can't beat real streets". If there is something about Manchester I'm not keen on, it's the minority of chippy Militant Mancunians who bear a grudge against London and who plug and namedrop their city excessively, as if expecting a round of applause when answering the question "where are you from?". Mancunians have an almost demented civic pride that leads many Mancs to firmly believe it is the finest city in the world - which is all very well, but too often this results in an annoying arrogance and insular
ity. Comparing Manchester to London is fairly futile, and the greatest city in the world it almost certainly isn't. Ignore the nasal boasting, and enjoy the buildings and bars instead. Finally, if you're expecting a mention of football, music, etc... well, that's a whole other story. Read Dave Haslam's book 'Manchester, England' if that's what you're interested in. It's a fairly thorough account.
I went to Liverpool yesterday. It's a weird place, I tell you. It is undoubtedly the most architecturally splendid major city outside London, with a surprisingly large swathe of the city resembling London's more famous Georgian districts such as Belgravia - all Georgian terraces and formality. The city centre itself begins unevenly outside Lime Street station with the juxtaposition of St Georges Hall and similarly impressive civic buildings with the typical retail mish-mash that characterises so many British cities. But it improves the closer you get to the riverside, with magnificent buildings and streetscapes that speak volumes of Liverpool's former wealth and power. The Cavern Quarter was uncannily redolent of parts of Covent Garden. And in Aigburth (I think that's the name) Liverpool has a suburb that rivals Birmingham's Edgbaston for leafy splendour. What makes it all so very Liverpool is the fact that the landscape is pockmarked with legendary landmarks: both cathedrals, the Liver buildings, the Radio City tower... But you can tell that Liverpool's fallen on hard times, that there's not much cash about. Some of it may look like Belgravia, but with a down-at-heel air instead of the patina of wealth that one might expect to surround such handsome buildings. Instead, there are huge blocks of derelict, gutted Georgian buildings. Amazing. And just off great avenues like Princes Street, dodgy estates prevail. For me the most interesting part of Liverpool is the Bold Street area, which is in the process of being regenerated in large part by the wonderful developer Urban Splash. The Mancunian apartments-and-bars formula is being meted out on its neighbour. Civic pride continues to manifest itself in Liverpool - not just in its huge and magnificent new Chinese arch in Chinatown but in the banner on a neighbouring derelict landmark building condemning the lack of effort made in finding a new use for it. Getting aro
und is easy: walk! It's a delight to do so. Otherwise there are four underground stations - a riot of Seventies beige and yellow melanine and formica - that form part of the Merseyrail network. And if you're staying the night, you could do worse that stay at the Campanile, a French affordable hotel chain usually found on the outskirts of cities but in Liverpool located within stumbling distance of the famous (and somewhat overrated) Albert Dock. The bad points: the local accent is, shall we say, "not for everyone." Indeed, it wound me up from the moment I arrived, and matters got worse from there. Furthermore, I was surprised to find the fashion stereotype amusingly true: scousers really do wear shellsuits - I was there for eight hours and counted eleven shellsuit-wearers, which is quite a lot given that it's, like, 2002. And there is a uniquely Liverpudlian fashion of tucking your shellsuit trousers INSIDE YOUR SOCKS. Oh my God. Why... But Liverpool's definitely on the up: as well as the new apartments and bars springing up, there are some fine new public spaces too. Liverpool is a sleeping giant. It probably won't catch up with neighbouring rival Manchester because Liverpool has lacked Manchester's tremendous good fortune. It's a shame: if there was more money in Liverpool, I am in no doubt that Liverpool would be the absolute king of England's provincial cities. There's so much potential - potential that will probably never be fully exploited. But it doesn't matter - scousers will always have a fierce and boundless love and pride for the place, and if the average visitor gives Liverpool a chance, they might, too.
The problem with the London Underground is that it's so damn essential - even if you don't want to use it, the chances are you will end up doing so as it is the quickest way to get to new places you've not been to before in the capital. But *is* it so essential? I'm beginning to think otherwise. After being made redundant recently, I had to make cutbacks. This meant buying an £8.50 weekly bus pass - quite cheap - compared to a Travelcard that includes Underground. And frankly, I've never been happier in London. Apart from the fact that I can sit on the top floor and admire our capital's vibrant street life and wonderful, diverse architecture, I can avoid all the things I hated about the tube. I hated the foul, stale air. I hated watching the rats dart between the rails. I hated the visual intrusion that the bombardment of adverts from every available space constituted. I hated the exorbitant expense. I hated the crowded carriages. Having to prise your way out of a crowded carriage at an unpopular station. Having to feel guilty for carrying a bag on your back - and then having to curse your own hypocracy for tutting when bumped into by bags on the backs of others. The not knowing where to look, anywhere but another passenger's eyes. The tourists milling about the platforms. The endless walking between line changes at any given station. Being bumped into by people rushing for trains. I hated it all. I think a person's opinion of a city is only as good as their experience of it. Taking the tube taints your whole experience of London. Your abiding memories will be of stressed, miserable commuters and the gloomy glare of striplights on dirt. Since omitting all that, I have begun to love London in a way I never did before when relying upon the tube. I have the time to appreciate the complex urban fabric that makes up this city. Part of this is, granted, to do with being unemployed at the moment: I have the time t
o contemplate. I can avoid peak times, and the crowds. If I had to take the tube again, please let it be the Jubilee Line extension - some great architecture, and it's fairly efficient; the only part of the tube that favourably compares with wonderful new Metros like those of Bilbao and Athens. Lines I will want to avoid are the Northern and Piccadilly Lines, which are always, always crowded - especially the latter. Otherwise, I consider the tube a means of transport of the last resort, and, together with the shocking numbers of homeless, the unbelievable prices, the Millennium Dome and the snobby fashion victims barking into their mobiles, it's a London embarrassment to be avoided if you possibly can.
It saddens me somewhat that so many have opted for the ferocious corporate monolith that is AOL(America OnLine)Time Warner as their ISP, not least because their adverts - with that ghastly uptight lady with the rigid hair, clipped tone and pulsating dress - drive me mad. I had also heard bad things about the AOL service itself, as well as about Freeserve, so I opted for LineOne. Since swallowed up by another corporate monolith, this time a European one, Tiscali, the ISP I had chosen was good - and, happily, its successor remains so. There are a number of different packages suited either to those who want to pay as they go (1p per minute off-peak) or who want to pay monthly for unlimited access, all of which are good value and with no cut-off point. Their homepage/portal is functional and full of content, without exactly sending shivers of excitement running up and down the spine in terms of presentation. As well as the mandatory multiple email addresses, there are free SMS text messages to be enjoyed, too. They've also just given me a CD-Rom from a selection on offer - just as a reward for being a customer! I'm usually too cynical to be bought off by ploys like that, but since everything else about this ISP has been fine, it served its purpose in cementing their place in my...um, affections. On the downside, a few connection glitches have emerged recently, mind, but nothing too frustrating. I'd still recommend it, especially to frustrated customers of other ISPs, as well as to Europhiles, people who like the colour purple, and anyone who can pronounce it correctly.
For the past eight months I've been commuting from London Waterloo to Woking (today is my last day, thank goodness) and have a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde day, commuting-wise. In the morning, I'd get the 8:08 from platform 8, and all will fine: a new-ish train, comfortable, punctual, tidy and swift. Very rarely was it ever delayed. And the efficiency stretches to ticket inspection, too. Tickets are inspected every morning, without fail. My return journey in the evening was a different matter. SWT still use a lot of the old 'slam-door' rolling stock that originate from the 1950s - noisy, slow and unloved. My return journey to Waterloo is usually in one of these and is almost always late. Delays stack up through the day until it gets to the point where there is a virtual impossibility of trains leaving on time. Furthermore, the trains often crawl along until Surbiton at such a low speed, I often think it would be quicker to bounce to London on my head. Tickets are rarely inspected in the evening. Which is just as well, since a great many passengers would probably like to tell the ticket inspector where to put them.
It's just the right size. Once the refurbishment's complete, it will be a great facility - Advantages: refurbished parts are lovely, easy to get to, constantly improving - Disadvantages: non-refurbished parts are crowded, with yuk 80s decor, not enough destinations, Eurohub a bit dated nowadays
All ops on Athens airport dated before March 2001 are out-of-date, for the old airport is history. The new one is now operational and sits on the Attica plain like a veritable behemoth, visible from miles around. It helps to have been to the old Hellinikon airport (or just 'Hell' as it was known to many) to appreciate the snappily-titled Eleftherios Venizelos Airport that now serves the 2004 Olympic City. Remember 1985? I refer not to Live Aid, Spitting Image or n-n-n-n-nineteen but to the hijack of a TWA flight which eventually landed in Beirut. That the hijackers boarded at Athens Airport gave the place a world-wide reputation for lax security, and brought to the fore all the other complaints regarding the airport: too small, too dirty, too hot and nothing to do. The terminal serving the Greek airline Olympic Airways was the worst, little more than a glorified shed - and deeply umpleasant to wile away the numerous delays passengers of that airline usually endure. The other terminal improved with time: it became cleaner, the air conditioning worked, money was lavished on the gardens in front of the airport and information screens improved. But it was still below par for a capital and a host of the Olympics. The new airport had been under planning since the 1970s but was dogged by the immeasurable delays and lack of achievement that characterise Greek politics. Eventually it opened in March 2001 near the town of Spata, about an hour's drive from the city centre. While the old airport was sandwiched between the coastal suburbs of Athens and the sea, and getting to the city centre was a swift affair, this one is way outside the city, on the other side of the mountains to the east of it. It is an impressive place. Not from the outside, granted: Greeks don't 'do' architecture; their preference for functionality has always led to the employment of rulers time and time again, even during the 1990s penchant for curvaceous
architecture. This airport is a typical example - from the outside, it looks like a large but cheap hospital, with no architectural flair whatsoever. Inside however, all is shiny and new. The marble floors are buffed clean. Free internet terminals are scattered about. Attractively spot-lit copies of ancient Greek artefacts are displayed outside. The check-in counters are all in one continuous line - there are no different terminals for different airlines and destinations. Behind the counters is an internal street lined with excellent shopping and dining facilities, including shops selling CDs, books, electronics, fashion, cosmetics, a delicatessen and an Official 2004 Olympics merchandise store - a welcome contrast to the pathetic array on offer at this airport's predecessor. Everything was calm, ordered and efficient. My brother, who had not been to Greece since 1995, cound't believe this was the same country: "This is just like Munich Airport!" he exclaimed. A few words of warning, though: this airport prides itself on providing the passenger with a 'serene' experience: therefore only one announcement of the boarding gate is made per flight departure. We were so busy browsing the shops we didn't hear the Final Call, and very nearly missed our flight. Also, some airlines depart from a satellite pier, accessed by underground walkways - this can be quite a walk, I'm told, of between 15 and 20 minutes. Getting into the city couldn't be easier: apart from taxis, buses leave for the city centre, the port of Piraeus and Ethniki Amyna Metro Station, where you can connect with the rest of the (similarly new and excellent) Metro network. The ticket costs about €2.93(£1.80)and once it's been validated, it can be used as a One Day Travelcard on board all of Athens' public transport - great idea. All vehicular traffic uses an empty new motorway that has cut a swathe trhough vineyards and
olive groves, and this takes you about half the way into the city. Look at the central reservation: if it seems wide, that's because by 2004 trains will be running up and down the motorway, connecting the airport to the city. We took the Metro from Syntagma Square to Ethniki Amyna and the bus was waiting just outside. It was suspiciously smooth, clean and efficient (again, is this *Greece*?!) and the whole journey to the airport lasted exactly an hour. Don't forget to have € coins ready for the (deliciously smooth) trolleys. This is a great airport. It looks smart, it works well, and it confounds all expectations. Yes, it is all new - and how it will age remains to be seen. But anyone used to the old airport will be in for a huge surpise, because the contrast couldn't be greater.
This film can't decide whether it wants to be sci-fi or fairy tale. Doesn't reward your patience - Advantages: fascinating premise, pleasing visual richness, committed acting from Haley Joel Osment - Disadvantages: loses the plot after an interesting first hour, drags and drags towards the end at a deathly slow rate, sugary and unfulfilling
As one of the most beloved American comedies of the 1990s, the writing finally seems to be on the wall for 'Friends'. Since 1994, we've been captivated with the stories of six New Yorkers, stories that crackled with wit and a uniquely sparky energy. What's more, this is a series that has, in many ways, changed the way we live: the 'Friends' lifestyle had such resonant appeal that Britons have wanted to buy into it in any way they can - witness the proliferation of American coffee bar chains and the prevalence of new 'Manhattan-style' apartment buildings in our city centres. But the latest series confirms that it's time to put this one to bed. All good things come to an end - the question is, can they come to an end with any dignity? On the latest evidence, no. The Chandler and Monica storyline was a huge mistake - one of the joys of Chandler's character was the humour that he used to disguise the insecurity derived from his perennial single-dom. That has now gone, and so has Chandler's entertainment value. Elsewhere predictability rules the roost - we've seen these characters too mnay times, we know exactly how they'll react to any given situation, what they'll say, how they'll say it...the freshness has gone. We know that Phoebe's going to be "oh! oh!" kooky, and that Matt Le Blanc as Joey is going to overact. Ross's character, once beatifully subtle, has morphed into an annoying, whiny dunderhead. Rachel remains somewhat unchanged, thankfully. The quality of writing remains reasonable, but because we're so familiar with the characters, the writers would have had to work extra hard to make us laugh. Instead we get something comfortable, no-brain viewing - which is fine but it would nice to laugh out loud again. Great things losing their freshness is nothing new. Indeed it is inevitable. It's happening the whole time. Ali G has overstayed his welcome. The
newest episodes of The Simpson are wearisome. The past two James Bond films indicate that there's nowhere new for this character to go, either. In *all* these cases, a self-awareness that comes from success has led to the characters almost satirising themselves, zealously overplaying the characteristics for which they became famous, and throwing subtlety to the wind. One series that avoided this decline was 'This Life' which quit while it was ahead and is still remembered with fondness. There was always too much money to be made from 'Friends' for that to have happened, but the imminent end of the series after the next season will be a blessed relief, tinged, of course, with a little sadness, too.
I know Birmingham probably better than any other city even though I'm from down south, and have a certain loyalty to the city that has given me so many of the things that I love: Cadbury's chocolate, Duran Duran and Baltis. Ha. You think I'm joking. I first went to Brum in 1994, not really knowing what to expect but having a vague recollection that it was supposed to be the UK's largest city after London and that it was supposed to be less-than-desirable. When I first saw Victoria Square, my jaw hit the floor and I stood gawping at the spectacle in semi-shock - not what I was expecting at all. I was an instant convert. Birmingham doesn't get much better than Victoria Square, at least for an immediate positive impact. I soon realised that although Birmingham has many impressive areas, such as Colmore Row, St. Paul's Square and the urban design success story of the 1990s, Brindleyplace, the city centre has some severe physical problems. The inner ring road, bludgeoned tightly around the city centre in the 1960s resulted in the demolition of swathes of the city. A mixture of the bland and the monstrous sprung up alongside the ring road, giving the city a brutal, disjointed feel. It remains a city of bits and pieces, with a cluttered skyline of half-hearted skyscrapers and blocks of council flats with snatches of the Victorian city scattered in between. Attractive areas like the Jewellery Quarter and Chinatown soon peter out into an indistinct nothingness of impromptu sheds, warehouses and poor quality housing that surround the city centre, with only the plush and leafy Georgian suburb of Edgbaston to break that ring. It is a great shame, in many ways. One can walk through the city centre and be impressed one minute, depressed the next. There's a close-but-no-cigar-ness to the city centre's overall look. No sooner has the visitor found something to cheer about than some ghastly block lurks around the
corner to spoil the impression. You can rave about chic shopping complex the Mailbox 'til the cows come home, but nothing can disguise the fact that you have to walk down Navigation Street to get there, a street that is difficult to traverse without grimacing at the vista. Healing the damage of these planning mistakes is a huge job, and Brum is about half way through a thirty year process of convalescence. This has yielded some praiseworthy results, of which Victoria Square's refashioning and Brindleyplace are but two. Now the focus will move to the opposite side of the city centre where potential-laden Digbeth is up for a costly revamp. So don't come to Birmingham solely for the architecture. And don't come for interesting, independent shops and cafes - Birmingham is just about the worst city for cafes imaginable. *Do* come for the nightlife, which is frenzied and glamorous. *Do* come for the canals, which wind their way through the city like fingers of black silk. *Do* come for the people, whose warmth and friendliness will soon make you forget you ever thought ill of their accent. *Do* come for some fascinating suburbs, from the Tolkien-related 'bohemian' (groan) district of Moseley to the cosmopolitan areas of Handsworth and Sparkbrook, from the chocolate suburb of Bournville to the green paradise of Edgbaston. *Do* come for the Custard Factory and the increasing buzz and crackle of a city whose future is spelled out in the cranes that pockmark the skyline and which is finally discovering the confidence to be itself. Whatever Brum's shortcomings are, it does kind of get to you after a while. A quietly addictive city for those prepared to dig a little deeper for urban gratification.
Who knows about Leicester? Who care about Leicester? Nobody, really. It's a city with a fairly low profile, whose name doesn't exactly send shivers of excitement running up and down anyone's spine. Probably the only times people hear of it is when buying cheese or going to their building society. Well, I know about Leicester - and I care, *and* I love it. I'm kind of glad it elicits such a feeling of indifference because I think it's one of England best-kept secrets. It's like a pocket-sized big city, brimming with attractive streets to explore and arcades stuffed full of tiny little independent shops - a refreshing change to the tide of boring chains that make every city look the same. Leciester has those too, but in the form of The Shires, one of very, very few shopping centres to attempt to fit in with neighbouring buildings, rather than imposing itself on the townscape with all the subtlety of an air raid. The most appealing aspect of Leicester is its scale and its 'vibe'. It's a human-sized city, not so big and bustling enough so as to be exhausting, nor so small and town-like so as to be dull. It's a perfect compromise for those who want city life to be enjoyable and not a chore. It's also a green city which prides itself on its environmental credentials. Although it does have the dreaded Midlands ring road syndrome, Leicester is a great place to hang out. Compared to its rivals, it may lack the prestige, the buzz, the wealth and the grandeur of Nottingham, but it knocks Coventry into a cocked hat. For visitors to the city, I'd recommend ambling into town from the station along New Walk, and take it from there.